Summer has not started and already there have been dozens of fires across Victoria. These are not bushfires but part of a fire “preventative” industry that has developed since 2000 that uses fire to fight fire — fuel reduction burns, prescription burns, asset protection burns and ecological burns.

The recently concluded Victorian Inquiry into the Impact Public Land Management was driven by “a popularist call” for increased “fuel reduction burning”. In was a “response” to the wild fires and the back burns used to “put them out” across one million hectares over two months in 2006/07.

Many Gippsland locals were upset by another summer of fires — fires and back burns that saw lights turned on in the middle of the day in Bairnsdale as the sun was reduced to a red ball in a black sky. There was little critical analysis of these fires. Indeed this inquiry has recommended to tripling of “fuel reduction burning” to 385,000 hectares annually including National Parks and water supply catchments.

A more accurate insight into the way the 2006/7 fires were “managed” may come from inquiry conducted by the Federal Government into bushfires after Canberra burnt in 2003. The Federal Inquiry was far more inquisitorial and gives a greater insight into how fires are managed in Victoria by the Department of Sustainability and Environment, Country Fire Authority and Parks Victoria.

In evidence given at Omeo in July 2003 Charles Slade, a Channel Nine News Journalist, relates of speaking with a government worker during the fires:

She said, “We are caught up in a huge” — and this was her term — “political battle that is going on between DSE, Parks Victoria and the CFA about bushfire management. It is about who is responsible for what and who gets credit for what, but, most importantly,” she said, “it is all to do with funding.”

The coverage of this bushfire emergency got increasingly alarmist, but there were, certainly from our point of view, absolutely no pictures to support that. Nobody was getting anywhere near this crisis up in the high country. During that time I had to go, as I recall, to two media conferences held by DSE in Melbourne, where there was a particular gentleman who was handling all their briefings.

About 10 days into this process, I said, “With all due respect, I do not think at this stage that this is the biggest bushfire in 100 years,” as DSE by then had dubbed it. I said, “I think it is the biggest back-burn in living memory”.

I have never had the experience, covering these things before, of the media being so totally controlled and denied access to fire fronts. In the five days I was up there, the only flames we got to film were where we were taken, under careful escort by media people, to places where DSE or CFA would put on a little back-burn, a staged back-burn. That was it.

I also told my newsroom when I was up there — and once again I was accused of being cynical — “This has become not only the biggest back-burn in history, but it has become ‘Save a town a day,'” because, each day, DSE would seem to nominate a community that was under enormous threat and, lo and behold, by that evening that community had been saved and this was another triumph for DSE.

Submissions to the 2003 inquiry detail aircraft being kept grounded when the weather was clear and letting small fires burn until they were major fires.

There were few similar submissions to the Victorian inquiry this year. Many locals thought it was pointless given the determination of the DSE in particular to burn how, where, when and what they wanted to regardless of their opinion.

Toward the end of Charles Slade’s evidence in 2003 he was asked by Mr David Hawker MP, the Member for Wannon, “So it could be that more than just a parliamentary inquiry is required; it could be that we need a judicial inquiry or a royal commission?”

The results of the recent Victorian Inquiry seem to underline this point.

Peter Fray

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